Steve Smith stood, perplexed, isolated and understandably troubled. He had effectively been labelled a cheat or, at best, an opportunist. Cricket’s capacity to conjure controversy, even on the most somnambulant of days, never ceases to amaze.
Ian Bell was within his rights to stand his ground when Smith casually claimed a catch in the gully as England were gently squeezing the life out of the Lord’s Test. It seemed a routine sequence, and stirred few passions; the Australians barely appealed, and ambled to congratulate the fielder.
He appeared to have placed his fingers, which were flat on the grass, under the ball. Since we no longer live in an age when a simple reassurance that the ball had carried suffices, Smith’s integrity was then implicitly judged by the third umpire, Tony Hill.
Bell, on three, survived to score 71 more runs. The crowd booed, and the moral majority rushed to ascend the steps to the pulpit. Their nerdy cousins began to get disconcertingly technical about the foreshortening quality of the modern TV camera.
A colonial poet with access to the official Cricket Australia Twitter account observed: “That decision sucked ass.” The hashtag – “bullshit” – left little room for manoeuvre. The apology for an undignified, unnecessary outburst was rapidly offered, yet the sense of frustration at the questionable parameters of technological influence will endure.
The last thing this Ashes series needs is another provocative situation, which tests the conventions of competitive courtesy between teams. The tourists, already facing potential humiliation on the fourth day of a contest that will sap their will, spirit and self-esteem, cannot allow any sense of resentment to foster.
Test match cricket is a hard school, but it is also a platform for old school cricketers of all ages. Joe Root, who possesses the features of a fourth former and the instincts of a playground bully, will remember the 202nd day of his 23rd year, when he became the youngest England batsman to score an Ashes century at Lord’s .
In the circumstances, he can be forgiven the gauche ritual of kissing the England badge on his protective helmet, after he had cut Ashton Agar through the covers for four to move to his second Test hundred.
Root deserves such indulgence because the doubters would have been in full voice had he not survived a flash through the slips when he had scored eight the previous evening. The instant judgements, following three immediate failures on his promotion to open the innings, would have been harsh and premature.
Joy propelled him ten strides towards the boundary where his younger brother Billy, an MCC groundstaff boy assigned twelfth man duties in a high visibility fluorescent jacket, was punching the air. Within minutes he was trending on Twitter. That was an appropriate honour, since even his nickname (Wireless, derived from wireless router, geddit?) smacks of modernity.
If someone at headquarters had a modicum of wit and imagination, they would have sprinkled white rose petals at his feet when he bathed in the warmth of a standing ovation at the end of play. His was an achievement which echoed from Barnsley to Barnoldswick, from Sheffield to Shiptonthorpe, across the People’s Republic of Yorkshire.
These are heady days for Tykedom. Yorkshire are on top of the County Championship, and Geoffrey Boycott has taken to telling our principal politicians how to do their job, when they make the PR pilgrimage to the Test Match Special studio. Proper criggit and plain speaking are back on the agenda.
Root proves the principle of an Academy can work in sport, despite the ruinously expensive mess football has made of its youth development. He has been earmarked for greatness since the age of 11, when he began to play representative schools cricket.
His example at the Yorkshire Academy, which he joined at 13, is stellar and being followed slavishly. A new generation is emerging. Fifteen-year-old bowler Matthew Fisher has been selected for England Under 19s. Wicketkeeper Barney Gibson, 17, is attracting rave reviews. Alex Lees, only 20, scored an unbeaten 275 in Friday’s win against Derbyshire.
Root’s remarkable progress is testament to measured, intelligent and effective coaching. He is more gritty and pragmatic than the likes of Kevin Pietersen, who was brought up on the reliable bounce of hard, dry pitches in South Africa. He has learned to improvise on Yorkshire puddings.
This innings, which will surely be extended into a double century this morning, has been studded with sumptuous straight drives, and examples of great technique under pressure. He has wonderful hand-eye co-ordination, and the ability to wait, to play late and effectively, which is the hallmark of the very best.
His ready smile disguises a killer temperament. For much of the day, play was the equivalent of a clearing up operation after a particularly wild party. The music was reduced to a background hum, and the previous night’s empties were being ferried to the tidy tip in a series of dustbin bags. It was quiet. Too damn quiet.
But once Root reached his century, he revealed himself as a stealthy assassin. The acceleration was instant, the aggression immediate. It completed the demoralisation of the Australians, whose body language suggested they will welcome oblivion, even if it arrives in the form of a series whitewash. For poor Smith, smashed for two sixes by Root in his final over, the agony refused to subside.